Sunday, October 21, 2007

Questionnaire: NAACP and Hank Anderson Breakfast Club

The local chapter of the NAACP and the Hank Anderson Breakfast Club conducted public candidate interviews of all candidates for local office on October 18, 2007. Below is the questionnaire I returned prior to that interview.

1. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district is recognized as one of the best LEAs in the state. If you had to identify one thing that the current administration has done to make our school district a model district what would that be? If you had to pick one thing that the current school administration has done that is not so commendable what would that be? (In other words identify one thing that you would consider a success and one thing that you would consider a failure in terms of the actions of the current school board and administration.)

An area in which the district excels is the use of technology such as using technology to improve communication through the ConnectEd system, enriching curriculum through ConnectToSchool, and efforts to bridge the digital divide. As a weakness, the district has not implemented some new initiatives well or been too slow to change course when those initiatives fall short, such as with the Minority Student Achievement Plan.

2. School board member Arnetta Streater proposed a very profound question at a recent School Board meeting that dealt with the issue of the alternative school, Phoenix Academy. In your opinion, are alternative schools necessary or should the school district find ways to keep children in the mainstream school setting? Do you think the alternative school in Chapel Hill is adequately meeting the need of the students it is designed to serve? If “yes” how so and if “no” why not?

We should continue to help support children who are struggling to remain in mainstream schools. Until the we have fully implemented supports through Professional Learning Communities and pyramids of interventions, Phoenix Academy is still needed to support those students who can not yet be supported in mainstream schools. Phoenix Academy has been very successful for seniors in attaining a high graduation rate. However, Phoenix has reached its capacity and expansion is needed if it is to continue to serve all students who need its safety net function.

3. It is quite apparent that white, Asian and affluent students are doing very well in our schools. However minority students especially Blacks and students from poor families are not faring as well. What do you think are some of the reasons for this disparity? What are some possible solutions to addressing this disparity and eliminating the educational achievement gap between poor and minority students and their white and affluent peers in our school district?

There are a large number of factors that have been associated with lower achievement in minority students including parental involvement and educational level, availability of books and computers in the home, socioeconomic status, access to challenging curriculums, and expectations of teachers peers, and parents. Funding disparities and differences in teacher experience and training are other factors known to influence educational quality but these do not appear to be operative within our school system.

The most important step we can take to improve educational outcomes for all students, but especially those at risk, is the rapid and effective implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s). PLC’s are a framework for teachers to work as teams, an essential component of which is provision of progressively more intense academic support individualized for each student. These progressive individualized supports are known as the pyramid of interventions. The curriculum to be taught must be defined and student learning assessed frequently with appropriate modification of the delivery of instruction for those students who have not yet learned the material. Each PLC defines the supports they will provide; these supports are generally characterized by more adults spending more time with a child, such as through tutoring, communication with parents, and required extra study periods but may also include services such as mentorship, substance abuse counseling, and mental health referrals as needed. Parents should be notified early if a child is not meeting high expectations so that parents can also help support their student. PLC’s are also a framework for professional development including addressing factors of cultural sensitivity. We should also continue to recruit and retain the best-qualified teachers and staff as well as maintain efforts to have teachers reflect the diversity of the student body.

4. In your opinion what are effective strategies for dealing with school drop out?

The dropout rate in our district is one of the lowest in the state. However, the number of students dropping out has been trending upward and although about half of those students end up in alternative educational settings (mostly community college), improved effort to retain students in school is needed. Steps that should be pursued include assuring academic success (e.g., through implementation of PLC’s, improving Career and Technical Education, and other academic support that allows students to catch up on failed courses such as through summer school and online credit recovery), alternatives to out of school suspension (e.g, Boomerang and Phoenix Academy), Positive Behavioral Support (which should help reduce suspension rates), counseling and/or referrals for treatment of substance abuse or mental health problems, provision of English as a Second Language instruction, close monitoring of at risk students, and mentoring for students without adequate parental support. Efforts should be made to assure that schools are welcoming places for all students and parents.

5. If elected to the school board, what areas or issues do you promise to focus most of your energy and attention?

My top priority is the continuing improvement of student achievement for all children through instructional techniques documented to be effective. Additional priorities include assuring a safe and welcoming environment for students and staff, continuing to attract and retain the best teachers and staff, planning for growth, improving the budget process, and maintaining effective working relations with other governmental bodies.

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